What lies above and below
By Larry Ferro
Jupiter rises in the east and when I focus my telescope, its unmistakable crimson bands come into exquisite view. What’s more amazing, though, are the tiny diamonds of light clustered about it, Jupiter’s moons. Galileo saw them as well. In fact, just as they do for me, their changing positions revealed themselves with the passage of time. From these movements, Galileo verified Copernicus’s notion that the earth orbited the sun and not the other way around. His ideas of heliocentrism, however, were considered radical and when investigated by the Roman Inquisition in 1616 they were found to be “foolish and absurd ” and “heretical”. This second point was not taken lightly; Galileo was imprisoned at the hand of the Pope.
Roughly two hundred years later in 1809, a twelve year old girl wanders the windswept beaches of England’s southern coast. There, the timeless pounding of the sea erodes the limestone cliffs leaving layer upon layer of exposed rock. Legendary fossil hunter Mary Anning, sees something that catches her eye. It is the first, well preserved fossil of an ichthyosaur. The world does not know what to make of it. Here is an animal that has never been seen before. Surely, it must exist somewhere, the clerics say, for just as new species do not suddenly appear, so existing ones do not disappear; God’s creations are not so imperfect as to become “extinct.” It is, in a sense, heresy, to proclaim otherwise. Still the fossils keep coming. Years later, Anning discovers the remains of another dinosaur, a plesiosaur, so intact and so unlike any living creature that extinction can no longer be denied. The seeds of Darwinism have been planted.
It goes without saying that Darwin’s ideas set many on edge. The idea of “man from monkey” was ridiculed with not quite the same vigor as Galileo’s findings but close. Today many religions such as the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod and the Southern Baptist still, in fact, wholly reject Darwinism. Others dance more lightly around the subject.
A fellow engineer, for instance, someone I’d known to be tops in her field, became rather evasive when I breached the topic.
“It’s just a theory,” she said.
“Yes”, I said, “but so is gravity and it works pretty well.”
“It has a lot of gaps,” she said.
“But it doesn’t,” I said. “If just one of the layers of rock being excavated by Mary Anning had both a human bone and a plesiosaur bone, the whole theory would be turned on its head. But that didn’t happen and never has.”
This was met with silence. My friend, it turned out, was very devout and I quickly learned that some religions hold the fear of eternal damnation over member’s heads for even forming the genesis of a question.
I find this both sad and intriguing for it makes me wonder what other concepts religion denies or represses that modern science is currently in the process of, or will, over time, bring crystal clear clarity to.
The Catholic Church is certain that a human being is present at the exact instant of conception. What science is that based on? Exactly when does a sperm and an egg become a person? At first contact, when the cell membrane is penetrated, when the entire DNA is released? How does the Church decide?
The LDS Church fought in California to insure that marriage is between a man and a woman. To my knowledge there has never been a peer reviewed study that says marriages are only successful if the two opposite sexes unite. On what scientific evidence does the Church make its claim?
Southern Baptists are so sure that Creationism is true they fight to change text books and to insert it into public school curriculums.
The debate over these issues, like the issues of centuries ago — heliocentrism, a flat earth or extinction — may seem silly and foolish to an observer 200 years from now.
Believers are, of course, free to believe as they choose but when they endeavor to impose their will on the secular population via legislation, packing school boards or sereptiously funding elections, we the public, should not accept any position that is not supported by empirical, testable evidence. All of us, lay people and religious leaders alike, should be able to peer through the metaphorical microscope and come to the same conclusion.
In fact, in the public sector, we are doing ourselves a great disservice to blindly accept a holy person’s word that what he says on these topical matters is inspired by God and therefore sacrosanct. This is, in a sense, no different than Pope Urban VIII who figuratively said to Galileo – “The earth goes around the sun? Don’t be a fool; only we, the Church, are privy to true knowledge!”
Larry Ferro is a chemical engineer living in Pocatello.